Government, Higher Education, and Law

Judge strikes down state aid to private schools

April 27, 2018
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LANSING — A Michigan judge struck down as unconstitutional state laws that reimburse private schools for the cost of fire drills, inspections and other state requirements.

Court of Claims Judge Cynthia Diane Stephens said yesterday the 2016 and 2017 budget laws violate the state constitution's ban regarding direct or indirect aid to non-public schools. It was a victory for public school groups that challenged $5 million in appropriations spread over two years.

The Republican-backed spending has been frozen during the lawsuit.

Stephens rejected the state's argument that the funds are not for educational purposes but rather health, safety and welfare purposes. She said providing money to offset compliance costs "supports the employment of nonpublic school employees" and cedes a "significant degree of control" to private schools - unlike other allowable expenses such as "shared-time" aid for public schools that enroll private students in non-core elective classes.

The suit was filed in March 2017 by the Michigan Association of School Boards, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan and groups representing school districts, administrators and parents. In July, the judge issued a preliminary injunction.

"I don't think from our perspective that we could have asked for a better ruling," said Don Wotruba, executive director of the school board group. "While it may not be a lot of money, it at least at this level of the courts closes the door on the Legislature trying to move further in this direction."

A state budget office spokesman declined to comment, saying lawmakers had requested the spending - not Gov. Rick Snyder. In 2016, after he signed a budget with an initial $2.5 million in aid to help cover private schools' costs to comply with mandates, the Republican governor unsuccessfully sought an advisory opinion from the state Supreme Court on whether the spending supported by GOP legislators was constitutional.

It was not immediately clear late Thursday if the state would appeal the ruling.

Advocacy groups such as the Michigan Catholic Conference, the church's policy arm, have said the funding is not educational and is intended to ensure all schoolchildren are kept safe and healthy with immunization reporting, background checks and other mandates.

A 1970 voter-approved amendment to Michigan's constitution prohibits using public money to directly or indirectly aid or maintain parochial and other private schools being attended by roughly 100,000 students. Courts have interpreted the amendment to bar state support for general educational programs unless the main effect is to further a "substantial" governmental purpose.

Last month, a group that includes a Catholic school in Grand Rapids, parents and GOP lawmakers filed a separate lawsuit challenging the 1970 ban. The plaintiffs said it was deeply rooted in anti-Catholic sentiment and violates the U.S. Constitution in a number of ways, including equal protection and free speech.

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